For part 1 of this series see: Alaska to the World: Alaska Airlines Postwar Adventure
Following James A. Wooten ascension to the presidency of Alaska Airlines in 1947 he expanded it into a worldwide charter airline. He proved very successful in acquiring charter contracts and one of the most important was that with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to take part in a proposed airlift of the Jewish population of Yemen to Israel. Alaska had already been flying Jewish refugees from Shanghai to Israel but as may be expected Alaska Airlines cheapskate owner R.W Marshall was not interested and insisted that Wooten provide the funds to setup the operation himself. This appears to have happened as 2 C-54s and a C-46 were assigned to the operation.
The result would be Operation On Wings of Eagles (commonly known as Operation Magic Carpet) and would see the airlift of 49,000 Yemenite Jews between early 1949 and September 24, 1950. Kept secret at the time it was only made public a few months after completion and has become something of a myth, which inspired further airlift operations in later years. It was not quite the wonderful success it has been made out to be but nonetheless stands as a substantial achievement, especially considering the conditions and equipment available.
The reasons behind the need for the airlift and why it was allowed are complex. Certainly there were many reasons for the Jews wanting to leave. Tudor Parfitt states:
"economic straits as their traditional role was whittled away, famine, disease, growing political persecution, and increased public hostility, the state of anarchy after the murder of Yahya, often a desire to be reunited with family members, incitement and encouragement to leave from [Zionist agents who] played on their religious sensibilities, promises that their passage would be paid to Israel and that their material difficulties would be cared for by the Jewish state, a sense that the Land of Israel was a veritable Eldorado, a sense of history being fulfilled, a fear of missing the boat, a sense that living wretchedly as dhimmis in an Islamic state was no longer God-ordained, a sense that as a people they had been flayed by history long enough: all these played a role. ... Purely religious, messianic sentiment too, had its part but by and large this has been overemphasised."
Alaska Airlines gave the running of the Magic Carpet operation over to one of its pilots: Robert F. Maguire Jr. he had worked with Jim Wooten before and had business experience the other pilots lacked. The sheer volumes of people that needed to be moved in a short timescale was a problem in of itself. To help cope the aircraft interiors were stripped and seats replaced by benches. This enabled the capacity of a C-46 to increase from 46-70 and a C-54 from 60-150. Obviously in the process safety considerations went out of the window, especially as extra fuel tanks often had to be carried in the cabins along with the passengers!
It seems flights actually began soon after Christmas 1948, with the first flight flown by Captain Warren Metzger. The Alaska Airlines operation was based at Asmara, in Eritrea because it was not safe to keep aircraft on the ground in Tel Aviv, which frequently received bombing raids. Obviously there was no opportunity to use Arab territory so the route taken was typically Asmara-Aden, to pickup the refugees from the British protectorate, then up the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba to Tel Aviv an donwards to Cyprus to spend the night.
The Magic Carpet was far from a well-oiled machine and there was certainly needless death and some corruption involved. Even once the refugees got to Israel there was further suffering as the country was ill-equipped to handle the influx. The following article by Vered Lee paints a more truthful picture of the operation and serves to puncture some of the propaganda:
The Frayed Truth of Operation Magic Carpet
Nonetheless the achievement was one of many that helped, for better or worse, solidify Israel's position as a nation in the Middle East. As for Alaska Airlines, this was the end of their Middle East adventure, however Robert Maguire was not done and he would go on to undertake further airlifts using his 'own' airline.
Serling, Robert J. Character & Characters: The Spirit of Alaska Airlines
Operation Magic Carpet. Alaska Airlines.com
Magic Carpet Pilots. Alaska Airlines.com
Robert F Maguire. Jewish Virtual Library
Operation Magic Carpet: Airlift of Yemenite Jews. Jewish Virtual Library
Robert F Maguire Jr, 94. Pilot who airlifted yemenite jews dies. NY Times
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: